Irving Babbitt believed that man defined himself not by his rights, but by his duties, and particularly how willing he was to restrain his darker impulses and sacrifice himself for another…
Famously, when Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt were debating one another while on a walk, the former, exasperated, asked: “Good God, man. Are you a Jesuit?” When his former student and friend, T.S. Eliot, confided to Babbitt that he had converted to Christianity, his mentor demanded that Eliot “come clean,” thus openly distancing himself from Babbitt’s humanism. Eliot obliged, overreacting and declaring himself “a classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” in the introduction to his next book, For Lancelot Andrewes (1928). Later, Eliot experienced immense personal and public embarrassment over this pronouncement, seeing it, rightly, as the exaggeration of a young man rejected by his master.
In his own writings, Babbitt also frequently bashed the Roman Catholic Church as authoritarian, whatever its past achievements. He admitted that while he respected the Jesuits for their rigorous thought and discipline, he certainly did not like them. Hence, his jab at his best friend, More.
While serving as the great American fountainhead of early twentieth-century conservatism, Babbitt’s distrust of Christianity has perplexed and vexed many of those who followed and, to this day, continue to follow him. Of his more immediate disciples, however, many converted to Anglicanism or Catholicism. In his excellent and revealing retrospective of humanism, published in 1958, Austin Warren noted that almost all of Babbitt’s students had converted to one of the two forms of Catholicism (English or Roman) in the generation following his death. Others, such as Milton Hindus, remained Jewish, but he was an exception to prove the rule. Still, other students, such as Harvard’s Louis Mercier, became not just Roman Catholic, but hyper-Roman Catholic. In his twenty-year retrospective, Warren movingly described the possible death-bed conversion of Babbitt:
Professor Louis Mercier of Harvard, preaching the ‘New Humanism’ in both French and English, was at the same time a zealous Roman Catholic, and offered, with Babbitt’s death-bed imprimatur, a chart which, equating their technical terms (for example grace and higher will), sought to demonstrate the philosophical and theological correspondence between St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, and Irving Babbitt.
While both Mercier and Warren offered what most likely was mere enthusiasm and prayerful hope for their beloved professor, the idea that Babbitt somehow accepted the grace of Christianity at the moment of his death offers much food for thought and forces one to re-examine much of what the great man had written in his life. Possibly, those writings did lead to an acceptance of Christianity, even when the earlier Babbitt had openly fought against the teachings of the Church. After all, his best friend, Paul Elmer More, found his way to Christianity by starting with Plato and following the trajectory of Plato’s thought in Stoicism and Christianity, culminating, he believed, in the decisions reached at the Council of Chalcedon. This was enough for More, and, therefore, it is not ridiculous to wonder if Babbitt came to a similar conclusion, if by a different route. Indeed, whatever Babbitt might have thought of the supposed authoritarianism of the twentieth-century Catholic Church, he admired many Christian humanists such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, and, of course, his best student, Tom Eliot.
One might also understandably look to Babbitt’s last published book (that is, the last published in his lifetime), the almost entirely forgotten and overlooked On Being Creative and Other Essays (1932). In it, Babbitt wrestled with the notions of Christian Grace, toying with the idea that it might mesh nicely—or even exactly parallel—his own long-held idea of a “Higher Will” to which the civilized and learned man must submit. Perhaps, he considered, “the ‘natural’ as conceived by the Stoics and other ancient rationalists,” tended to give way to the supernatural in the form of grace.” Though Babbitt remained somewhat skeptical that this loss of the older version of “natural” might be good, he certainly knew that he disliked those who had openly rejected supernatural grace as the fulfillment of pre-Christian conceptions of grace. Beginning in the late Medieval Renaissance and finding fulfillment in the romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the individualist of the naturalistic type has not only discarded grace but along with it the whole notion of transcendent will.” Perhaps in a strange and misguided effort to make sure that no one who read this would think that Babbitt had gone over to the Christian side, he noted immediately after his condemnation of the Romantics that the modern, good humanist could follow More, attempting “to steer a middle course between a traditional authority in religion that has become so absolute as to be oppressive and the mere anarchy of private judgement.” For Babbitt, private judgment meant Rousseau, and oppression meant the Pope. He hoped men would choose neither.
Regardless of faith, the practice of the humanist “from the time of the ancient Greeks, has been the avoidance of excess. Anyone who sets out to live temperately and proportionately will find that he will need to impose upon himself a difficult discipline. “After all, Babbitt believed, following Cicero, that man defined himself not by his rights, but by his duties, and particularly how willing he was to restrain his darker impulses and sacrifice himself for another. In every way, though, Babbitt argued, humanism could never be a substitute for religion, but a way of life that defined one’s immediate and personal ethics.
While it is probably wrong to presume that Babbitt converted on his deathbed, we can note one thing for certain: His followers found their own humanism fulfilled either in orthodox Christianity or Judaism. Further, the New Testament writers clearly believe we are to judge a man and an action by his or its fruits. Whatever Babbitt might have said or written regarding the Church and its many flaws and faults, the fruits of his labor are quite clear—he lead many people to the faith. And, to this, we should say “thank you” and, even more emphatically, “amen.”
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